Shirin Neshat on the Uprisings in Iran

Sean Burns speaks to the artist about the current protests in her home country and how the art world can better act in solidarity with the insurgents

BY Shirin Neshat AND Sean Burns in Interviews , Opinion | 23 DEC 22

Shirin Neshat’s artwork – which encompasses film, installation, performance and photography – broadly addresses the role of women in Iranian culture. Born in Iran in 1957, the artist, who has lived in New York since 1975, cannot return to her homeland for fear of retribution from the oppressive autocratic regime.

Assistant editor Sean Burns spoke to Neshat about the current uprisings in Iran, triggered by the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, and how the art world can better act in solidarity with the insurgents.

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence, from ‘Women of Allah’ series, 1994, RC print and ink. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Sean Burns Your photographic work often repurposes texts from historical Iranian women writers, such as the poet Forough Farrokhzad.

Shirin Neshat First, I must explain that all Iranians have an affinity with literature. We don’t have a history of visual art, but we have a history of poetry going back to ancient times. From a young age, I was struck by Farrokhzad. She was extremely radical in speaking about sexuality and religion – breaking all kinds of traditional taboos. Her work is powerful, regardless of her gender, but she had a feminist voice and was radical even in her lifestyle. Tragically, she died in 1967 in a car accident at the age of 32. As I was making my work, which explored issues of the female body in Iran, I was struck by how her personal life intertwined with it. I related to her story as an outcast woman artist. In many ways, my images became an embodiment of her words. I could reasonably claim that I might not have become an artist if it hadn’t been for Farrokhzad’s words. I was – and still am – drawn to women whose untraditional attitudes somehow prevailed in their writing. 

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, Speechless, from ‘Women of Allah’ series, 1996, RC print and ink. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery

SB Does Farrokhzad’s poetry continue to influence young people today? 

SN Yes, since there was always this element of protest to her poetry. Farrokhzad broke every rule of traditional society: she wrote a poem called ‘Face to Face with God’ (c.1964), in which she confronted God about her desires, and spoke of the female body in a way that no one had previously dared. Unveiling (1993), one of my first images, which was recently installed at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, featured her writing. Now, 30 years later, I’m using her poetry again in a new body of work.

Gathering to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran in front of the entrance of the Neue Nationalgalerie, 2022. Courtesy: © Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 

SB In October, the Neue Nationalgalerie staged a solidarity weekend for those protesting in Iran, uniting Berlin-based Iranian artists, musicians, poets and activists. How could the broader art world follow suit?

SN The art world is overly occupied with art history and market concerns, leaving very little room for political discourse. I shouldn’t have to reach out to the art world and say: ‘You must help. We must raise awareness about this crime against humanity. This is about the art world showing solidarity with a massive and beautiful revolution. You must be a part of it: you’re my community.’ It has taken a long time to get the attention of museum directors, curators and artists. I’m not saying that all artists ought to be political activists, but they should participate in discourse about what is going on in the world, how a fascist regime is brutalizing and executing its own people, including its artists and musicians. On the other hand, it is fascinating to see how creative the Iranian community has become within the past three months, and how much protest art is flourishing in Iran in forms of music, performance, theatre, film, animation and visual art. 

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, Untitled, from ‘Women of Allah’ series, 1996, RC print and ink. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery 

SB How do you see the oppression of women in Iran relating to the experiences of women in other societies?

SN It’s interesting to observe how, despite all the pressures of discrimination, Iran is leading the first female-driven revolution while the US is effectively regressing in terms of abortion access and women’s rights. As a person divided between west and east, my gut feeling is that the more people are pressed into a corner, the higher the likelihood they will rebel. Iranian women have paid the highest price under this regime and their rage has been unleashed. In the US, you don’t find the same rage. I’m shocked that there’s not been more of a reaction to the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. I think Americans deliberate more about whether they should protest.

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, Women Without Men, 2009, film still. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery

SB The current demonstrations in Iran have been characterized by the vast numbers of women and young people taking significant risks to make their voices heard. What distinguishes this new energy from previous attempts to overthrow the government? 

SN Education is the number one factor. Also, these young people are the product of the internet. They have been exposed to a world to which they cannot travel, so they see a bleak future for themselves. Their intelligence comes from their education and their exposure. They would rather die than live an existence in which so many of their human rights are denied and they have zero freedom, not to mention the terrible economy and job prospects. They are kept hostage with no resources to travel – prisoners of their own government – but they are courageous and extremely well-informed. 

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, Allegiance with Wakefulness, from ‘Women of Allah’ series, 1994, gelatin silver print and ink. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery

SB You’ve described your work as a means of retaining a connection with Iran – a country to which you cannot return. Could you talk about how you’re processing the current upheaval through your art?

SN Most of my work has become a historical narrative about Iran, which usually responds to events ten years after the fact. Whenever there’s turmoil, the activist in me gets involved because I feel that I have a responsibility to do so and it’s expected of me. How that translates into my work is very different. By pure coincidence, I shot a new video and a series of photographs last spring – which will be shown at Gladstone Gallery in New York in January – that investigate the impact of female sexual assault in Iranian prisons. The exhibition ‘The Fury’ is about an Iranian woman living in the US who, though free, is still traumatized by her memories and the pain of being abused in prison. The photographs – a series of female nudes – examines the situation from both eastern and western perspectives, portraying a women’s naked body as an object of both desire and violence, dignity and vulnerability. Many people will think that I made this work in response to the uprising, but I’ve been fixated for years on the numbers of women being assaulted in Iranian prisons and how their abuse leads to psychological breakdown and suicide. I’ve always been interested in how the female body is used as a battle ground for political rhetoric. 

Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat, Untitled, from ‘Women of Allah’ series, 1996, gelatin silver print and ink. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery

SB How do you feel about the relationship between art and activism? I know activism is not usually a term you would use to describe your work.

SN It’s a tricky intersection because I have never been interested in doing work that distinguishes between right and wrong or pushes a particular ideology. The worst kind of art tries to tell the audience how to think. So, much of my work is surrealistic, conceptual, magical realist and poetic; it uses a lot of metaphors because I’m afraid of pointing fingers. That same ambiguity is what I love about Farrokhzad’s poetry. I want my work to keep a level of interpretive ambiguity, and for my audience to decide for themselves.

Main image: Shirin Neshat, Women Without Men, 2009, film still. Courtesy: © the artist and Gladstone Gallery 

Shirin Neshat is an Iranian-born artist and filmmaker living in New York.

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.